Sep 21, 2006
I once interviewed renowned odor theorist Luca Turin who described one particular group of chemicals as being the “the Godzilla of smells”. He added that “You can’t believe how awful they smell…They make you vomit your guts out instantly.” Thankfully, I never came across them when I worked in a lab, but I’m sure he’s right.
Of course, the reason that I never happened upon these compounds during my lab days is that they have such an offensive odor that mosts chemists side-step them when designing their syntheses. That’s a shame though because they have several distinct benefits missing from the properties list of other ingredients.
Now, Michael Pirrung and Subir Ghorai, of the University of California at Riverside have found a way to make a new family of isonitriles. Their approach uses low-risk starting materials and they work well in the kinds of chemical synthesis reactions in which existing compounds are not quite so good. But, more to the point, these isonitriles don’t make you vomit. Instead, that have rather pleasant odors of soy, malt, natural rubber, mild cherry and even caramel, according to the team.
A bad smell is usually an indication that something won’t be too good to eat though. A mild cherry and caramel reaction sounds almost tasty, but I would seriously not recommend making it a lab-time snack.
More on isonitriles in the latest issue of JACS.